W.E.B. Du Bois


November 1, 1920

There was a time when the South appealed to the world against the Negro on the ground that he was ignorant and inefficient. The answer to this was that education and social justice would gradually work the same changes in black as in white folk. Nevertheless, the strength of the southern argument lay in its insistence that during the transition from the ignorance of slavery to the efficiency of freedom, temporary disfranchisement and segregation were justifiable. It was this plea, repeated again and again with every appeal to class feeling and personal experience, that gained in the land and in the world so wide an acquiescence in the Southern Caste program.

Meantime in slow and fatal certainty the problem changed. The educated and efficient Negro appeared—now here and there, now in groups and mass movements. Subtly the southern argument changed. It was not merely ignorance and inefficiency that was to be feared—it was rather the intelligence and efficiency of black folk. Indeed the more gifted and better trained the black man, the more the white man must fear him. In other words, it is not human stupidity and blundering that the South fights, it is race; and if one immediately points out that according to modern science there is no such thing as “race,” the argument marches right on with the mediaeval Blumenbach and Gobineau.

Nothing illustrates this descensus Averno better than woman suffrage. The Washington correspondent of the Norfolk, Va., Virginian Pilot in an interview with Representative Henry D. Flood, “dean of the Virginia delegation in the House,” says that Section 19 of the Virginia Constitution, which Mr. Flood would revive to meet the present occasion, was the famous alternative military, property, or understanding qualification. Under it a white applicant for registration would not necessarily be disqualified if unable to read and write, whereas a colored applicant would not necessarily be qualified even if able to read and write.

“This,” said Mr. Flood today, “would enable all the white women in the state to be registered and would practically exclude all the Negro women, throwing the same safeguards round the electorate with regard to females as in 1902 and 1903 we threw round it with regard to males.”

Not satisfied with this amazing confession, the Virginian Pilot replies editorially (the italics are ours):

To invoke Article 19 anew and apply it to a State-wide registration of women when suffrage becomes a fait accompli, would be to bring to the fore again public distempers that have long lain dormant. It would be far less easy in the present state of belligerent race consciousness to apply this article in such a manner as to obtain the desired end today, than it was 29 years ago. … It is not the superior intelligence of colored women over colored men that threatens white supremacy. They cannot become a disturbing political factor until their intelligence as a class is superior to that of white women. If an inexplicable reversion of all recorded history should put such an eventuality within the range of probability it will not occur overnight. There will be ample warning and it will be time enough then to resort to a drastic redressing of the voting lists.

Think of it! If the black race at any time or place comes to excel the whites, then we will pull them down by force! Will we?


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1920. “Suffrage.” The Crisis 21 (1): 9–10.